Do We Really Live in a World of Scarce Resources?

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Thu, Dec 11 - 9:00 am EST | 4 years ago by
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The Good Life

You’ve likely heard the Bad News: we are supposed to be running out of resources. As a result you are sometimes asked: Will you continue use up resources selfishly — or are you willing to make sacrifices? Possibly you individually are a person of selfless virtue, but how likely is it that most other people will give up their consumerist lifestyles for the good of humanity? So, you are also asked, shouldn’t we empower the government to make some tough choices on behalf of future generations?

The Good News, though, is that the Bad News is almost always false — and a relic of pre-modern thinking. But the belief that we live in a world of scarce resources is still widespread and dangerous, as it sets us up for desperate measures. We must, some suggest, resort to lifeboat ethics. Perhaps the claim will be that we need to reduce the population, possibly even by imposed birth-control regulation or voluntary human extinction. Or perhaps we need to ration access to the dwindling resources so that only essentials are produced and only the most worthy get to consume them.

We are divided into Doomsters who are convinced that the end is nigh and Boomsters who see a present and future world of plenty.

One way to assess the scarce-resources claim is to look specifically at key resources: food, water, living space, wood, iron, oil, natural gas, bauxite, and so on. Are they scarce?

Start with your own home. It likely has running water and a stocked refrigerator. If you run low, there is a grocery store nearby. Even if you live in a modern city built in a desert — like Phoenix, Arizona — food and water are plentiful. (When was the last time that Phoenix’s grocery stores were without bread, meat, vegetables, or water, and Arizonans went hungry and thirsty?) Even in our poor neighborhoods, average heights and weights are increasing, a sign of better nutrition and food availability. Production has increased dramatically, and food is now so plentiful that we have the chubbiest poor people in history.

And it’s not only in the rich countries. Food output across the world has gone up, in part thanks to giants such as Norman Borlaug, and worldwide poverty rates have fallen wonderfully.

Oil and gas? Estimated oil reserves are enough for centuries, and natural gas reserves may be even greater. And that is at current prices and with current technologies. If prices go up, other reserves become economical to develop; and as technologies improve more oil and gas can be reached, and more synthetic substitutes can be developed.

What about minerals and metals? Here is a fun pair of numbers that I first heard from economist George Reisman: the center of the Earth is 6,371 kilometers down, while the deepest mine in the world is 3.9 kilometers. Consider also that over 99% of all of the mines in human history have been on land, but 71% of the Earth is covered in water.

Or consider large-scale energy. Three centuries ago, our total available energy resources were whatever muscle-, wood-, wind-, and water-power we could harness. But scientific and technological advances in the 1700s enabled us to tap the power of coal. So the available stock of energy increased — all of the muscle, wood, wind, and water were still available, plus all of the world’s coal. In the 1800s, further advances let us extract energy from oil. The amount of available energy increased again — all of the muscle, wood, coal, etc., plus all of the world’s oil. Add natural gas in the 1900s, along with all of the fissionable materials like uranium. And of course the sun pumps huge amounts of energy into our system every day, and we continue to develop high-technologies that will help us better harness it.

The point is that the net stock of large-scale energy resources is increasing, and that increase is potentially infinite.

The Earth’s resources are limited, but those limits are the limits of the Earth and of our abilities. And there are no known limits to our abilities — we humans are not merely gatherers of a fixed supply of resources; we are discoverers and creators of a potentially unlimited supply of resources. That was the economist Julian Simon’s still-under-appreciated point about the ultimate resource: intelligence.

We are smart, and our thinking about resources must take into account the transformative power of the scientific and industrial revolutions — and the political-economic revolutions that gave millions the freedom to think, discover, and act on their new knowledge and inventions. Resource scarcity is not a problem for modern free and rational nations.

Despite a large number of optimistic data points, scarcity thinking is a deeply-embedded mindset for many. Here is Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management: “We can see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste, our soil being carried by floods into the sea; and the end of our coal and our iron is in sight.” That was Taylor in The Principles of Scientific Management, published in… 1911. Over a century later, how many of our current Doomsters are still intoning Taylor’s lament?

So consider one more resource to make the point: wood. Depending upon where one is in the world, the world’s timber resources are plentiful or potentially scarce. Europeans have been cutting down trees for millennia, but the continent has significantly more trees now than a century ago. In North America, wood production has increased greatly while forestation rates have remained constant for the past century in both Canada and the USA.

By contrast, deforestation might be a problem in developing nations, where about half of deforestation is caused by subsistence-level farming. Subsistence-level farming is a phenomenon of the word’s poorest countries, where people do what they have to in order to scrape a living from the land. So deforestation in poorer countries only might be a problem because history shows that as nations become prosperous, they improve their habits as the Europeans and North Americans, for example, did. They think longer range; they save and re-invest more; and they develop more creative problem-solving abilities.

So can the developing nations continue to develop? Of course that is an open question, and the answer depends on politics. Relatively free nations become prosperous, and relatively unfree nations become or remain poor. That is to say, scarcity of resources is not a natural problem but a function of bad politics. (Note for example, that many places that are naturally well-endowed with resources — like Romania, Nigeria, and Venezuela — regularly experience resource scarcity.)

We are the first few generations in history to experience plenty. Doomsterism has had a long history, and no doubt many will remain stuck in its old modes of zero-sum thinking.

But Boomster optimism is the new realism — a realism based on the capacity of free humans beings to develop the science, technology, and wealth to solve scarce-resource problems. We are nowhere near reaching the limits of our potential.

Don’t miss last week’s column: Lifeboat Ethics: How Scarcity Thinking Sets Us at Each Others’ Throats

Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .

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